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William Smith papers


Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

William Smith was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, the son of Elizabeth Duncan and Thomas Smith. In 1747 he left the University of Aberdeen before receiving his degree to teach, first in Scotland, and then, in 1751, in the home of Josiah Martin on Long Island, New York.

Smith's 1753 essay "A General Idea of the College of Mirania" impressed Benjamin Franklin and the Rev. Richard Peters, leading to Smith's appointment to teach natural philosophy and logic at the Academy of Philadelphia. After visiting the school in June 1753, Smith wrote "A Poem on Visiting the Academy of Philadelphia." Smith's credentials were made even stronger when he was ordained as a Church of England clergyman immediately before his 1754 election as a professor at the Academy. In 1755, the Academy was chartered as the College of Philadelphia and Smith was appointed Provost, which position he held until 1779 when the College became the University of the State of Pennsylvania. He resumed his position in 1789, when the College was restored, until 1791 when it was merged with the University of the State of Pennsylvania and a new charter issued in the name of the University of Pennsylvania.

During Smith's first few years on the job, Franklin supported Smith's reorganization of the school to include not only the Academy, but also the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). Smith served as the College's first provost, the equivalent of the modern post of college president. Smith and Franklin, however, did not always agree. In the College, Smith put more emphasis on classical education than Franklin had envisioned. In the realm of Pennsylvania politics, Franklin and Smith were almost immediately at odds with each other, in particular about whether the provincial military forces should be controlled popularly (by Franklin's party) or by the proprietary Penn family.

This public dispute led in 1756 to a power shift within Penn's Board of Trustees, and the replacement of Franklin by Richard Peters as president. In 1758, Provost Smith was jailed briefly by the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly for his printed attacks on the Assembly's military policy. During his imprisonment, Smith actually taught classes from jail. Smith was imprisoned along with William Moore, a leading Philadelphia Anglican as well as a judge, provincial assemblyman and critic of Quaker pacifism. Moore, like Smith, had been arrested as a result of his attacks on the assembly's military policy. Smith courted his jail mate's daughter Rebecca Moore and married her that same year. Together Rebecca and William Smith would have seven children.

During his long tenure as Penn's first provost, Smith had a significant impact on the early formation of the college which would later be known as the University of Pennsylvania. Although Smith led Anglican services at the College and encouraged discussions of the Bible and religion outside of the classroom, he encouraged students of all faiths to attend and did not include official courses of religion in the curriculum. It was his view that students learned true religion from exposure to pure and truthful teaching. Readings focused on ethics and on deist views of the universe authored by a variety of authors.

The quality of Smith's mind was widely recognized. He received honorary D.D. degrees from Oxford and Aberdeen in 1759 and from Dublin in 1763. In 1768, he was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society.

During the Stamp Act crisis and the early years of the American Revolution, Smith favored the broadening of colonial liberties, but decried the tendency to turbulence and upheaval. His printed essays called for caution grounded in colonial self-interest. Because Pennsylvania patriots suspected Smith of Loyalist sympathies, the new state government did not name him either as a trustee or the head of the University of the State of Pennsylvania when they created the institution in 1779. Instead, the new institution was headed by John Ewing. Smith remained Provost of a diminshed College of Philadelphia until 1791 when the College was united with the University of the State of Pennsylvania to form the University of Pennsylvania.

During the 1780s, Smith moved to Maryland. Here he founded Washington College as a nondenominational college with a curriculum similar to the courses he had instituted at the College of Philadelphia. In 1785, he worked on the American prayerbook. Long involved in ecclesiastical disputes, especially the controversy over whether or not to appoint an American bishop, Smith presided over the 1780 convention that created the new diocese of Maryland. He was elected, but never consecrated as Maryland's first bishop.

Two of Smith's sons attended the Academy and then the College of Philadelphia: William Moore Smith (1759-1821) A.B. 1775 and Thomas Duncan Smith (1760-1789) A.B. 1776.

Entirety of the biographical note taken from Penn Biographies.

This collection consists of personal and professional papers, including correspondence, sermons, lecture notes on natural philosophy and theology, and a small number of financial records and minutes from Smith's tenure as provost. Researchers will also find a small amount of printed material concerning the College of Philadelphia collected by Smith. Smith's efforts to raise money for the college; his roles in the operations of the college as an administrator, a member of the faculty, and a clergyman; and his struggles with political authorities are documented.

University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Finding Aid Author
Clémence Scouten
Finding Aid Date
2015 April 28
Access Restrictions

This collection is open for research use.

Use Restrictions

Copyright restrictions may exist. For most library holdings, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania do not hold copyright. It is the responsibility of the requester to seek permission from the holder of the copyright to reproduce material from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

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College, Academy, and Charitable Schools of Philadelphia, 1761, 1792.
Box 1 Folder 1
Fergusson, Elizabeth Graeme, 1781.
Box 1 Folder 2
Jones, Samuel, 1799.
Box 1 Folder 3
Nicholson, John, 1794, 1797.
Box 1 Folder 4
Weiser, Conrad, 1755. 1 item.
Box 2 Folder 32
Physical Description

1 item2 leaves

A charge delivered at the first anniversary commencement in the College, 1757.
Box 1 Folder 5
Sermons for Advent and Christmas in a collection of sermons, 1765.
Box 1 Folder 6
Diligence in Our Temporal and Spiritual Callings, 1766.
Box 1 Folder 7
Sermon addressed to students, undated.
Box 1 Folder 8
Jasper Yeates's notes from Smith's lectures, 1760.
Box 1 Folder 9
Bound collection of partial lecture notes, 1768.
Box 1 Folder 10
Lecture notes, 1769.
Box 1 Folder 11
Lecture notes, circa 1778.
Box 1 Folder 12
Theological exercises, 1767.
Box 1 Folder 13
Theological exercises, 1768 March.
Box 1 Folder 14
Concluding remarks, 1768 June.
Box 1 Folder 15
Theological exercises, 1769.
Box 1 Folder 16
Commonplace book, undated.
Box 2 Folder 17
Commonplace book, photocopy, undated.
Box 2 Folder 18

Petition to Charles Pratt, 1759.
Box 2 Folder 19
Will, 1803.
Box 2 Folder 20

Additional Charter of the College, printed by Franklin and Hall, 1755.
Box 2 Folder 24
Miscellaneous, printed fundraising letters (photostats), 1762.
Box 2 Folder 30
Account book, England and Scotland, 1762-1763.
Box 2 Folder 22
Receipts, 1769-1770.
Box 2 Folder 31
Charter, Laws and Regulations for the College, 1771-1789.
Box 2 Folder 25
Account book, Pennsylvania, 1772.
Box 2 Folder 21
An act for the continuance and encouragement of the College, 1778-1789.
Box 2 Folder 28
"University Act", 1779.
Box 2 Folder 26
Protest to Pennsylvania Assembly, from Pennsylvania Gazette, 1788.
Box 2 Folder 23
Draft minutes, Board of Trustees, 1789-1790.
Box 2 Folder 27
Binding, undated.
Box 2 Folder 29

Print, Suggest